Sometimes the best thing about a club are the people in the club.
On the spur of the moment this afternoon, I flew to Turners Falls with George and his son Chris. George flew in the back, his medical had lapsed. Chris flew in the right seat. I did the take offs and landings from the left seat, and Chris did the rest. On his first flight ever, he held altitude to within a couple hundred feet and held heading with landmarks pinned to the windscreen, all with only the most modest coaching from me. Quite amazing.
George made the occasional comment to his son from the back. “You are near an airport now, so you want to keep a good look out for other planes.” Gosh, I thought, that sounds like a good idea. “You are a little high, watch your altitude.” Gosh, I thought, I should have noticed that. “See how much faster we are flying home with the wind at our backs?” Gosh, I thought, we really are moving faster inbound than outbound. But this flight wasn’t about me, of course. What I think I was watching was a father’s joy experiencing his own passion with his son, and a father’s pride watching his confident son grow increasingly comfortable and in control as the miles went by. I hoped for the same kinds of experiences with my own son in another decade.
We landed at Turners Falls and discovered another father-son experience. The airport operator was in the FBO working on a preheater of his own invention. The preheater had a pair of flexible tubes bending up and forward from the burner to warm an airplane’s engine via both air inlets at once. He struck the spark, and a momentary flame protruded from the nearest tube, a fire-breathing dragon with flames leaping from its nostril. As we talked about his creation, he started talking about the airport, and his own son running the maintenance shop in an adjacent hanger.
I drove home in the dark and found my own son, nearly ten years younger than Chris, ready and raring to go. He beamed with pride as he held up for me to see his first pair of ice skates. I told him over dinner about flying with Chris. “Awwww, I want to go.” And you shall, my son, some day, just like Chris.
Way to go, Chris, I’ll fly with you any day.
Today I had the chance to watch a glider in aerobatic flight.
We have all been to airshows and watched the best of the best fly planes in ways that should not be possible. Flying straight up into the air, slowing until the plane is just hanging by its teeth from the propeller, falling in a faint to the side with just enough rudder to push the nose over. The whining of engines, the Doppler effect and skillful adjustments to power changing constantly the pitch of the engine. The noise and the smoke and the tumbling and the chaos.
But not in a glider.
A pair of us in our club also belong to the Greater Boston Soaring Club and fly gliders out of Sterling just north of Worcester. Two or three times a year, we take turns running the field coordinating the launch and retrieval of gliders and towplanes and ropes (you can’t fly gliders without a lot of friends on the ground). Today was my day. It was a cold, gusty, New England fall day with broken layers of clouds at 4 and 7 and 10 thousand feet, with breaks in one layer exposing the next, and every now and then the breaks lining up to show a patch of blue at the top.
Waiting for people to show up, I watched a beautifully restored Cessna 120, forest green on white, practice landings in the grass. Soon a Cessna 172 arrived to practice short field landings on the asphalt, those massive flaps and strong headwind and a skillful instructor combining to give a forward speed over the ground so low the plane seemed simply to step out of the air onto the smooth surface and stop. And then gliders started flying, and then a Piper Cub, and then a Citabria, all peacefully sharing space together on the grass. This is the glory of aviation, of pure flight, seen most vividly within the close family of community aviation at a small airport. But the wind was cold and strong and burned the skin on my face. I was longing for the fun to end.
And then two instructors launched to practice aerobatics in the Puchacz, a two-place aerobatic glider called “the Puch” within the club. With everyone watching, they took a tow to 4,000 feet and released. Watchers on the ground took turns narrating. “Okay, clearing turns.” Wait. Wait. Wait. “What are they going to do?” Wait. Wait. “Okay, there it is.” The glider dipped its nose twenty degrees. “Picking up speed.” Wait. “There they go.” The glider lifted its nose, closed its eyes and spread its fifty-foot wings wide, exposed its stomach freely to the heavens, and simply reclined onto its back and completed the loop. So effortless, so graceful, so gentle. So quiet.
After putting everything away, a friend heard the incessant hooting of an owl off in the woods. Puchacz is Polish for “Eagle Owl.” And, of course, that’s a guy who really knows how to fly.
Flight instructor Claire Bentley and Boston controller Bob Adelizzi will hold an FAA Safety Seminar on improving communication techniques, understanding TFRs, and the consequences of poor preflight planning at Eagle East Aviation at the Lawrence Airport on November 12 at 7:00pm.
I once went home to Nebraska on vacation and got checked out to fly a Cessna at Silverhawk Aviation at the Lincoln airport. The instructor asked if I minded flying in the gusty conditions, I said it was fine, and he said, “Good, because if you don’t like flying in wind, you aren’t going to fly in Nebraska.”
We’ve had a summer of calm wind in the Greater Boston area, but Sunday afternoon was one blustery, gusty, old-school, New England fall kind of day. I had hoped to take my first-grade son up for his first flight that afternoon. His youth-sized David Clark headsets had arrived in the mail the day before, and he had spent a few minutes that afternoon walking around the living room wearing his new green headsets (he would have preferred purple) speaking into the microphone silly things like “Captain Daddy! Captain Daddy! All seat belts are fastened!” and assuring me that he would be able to hear me if I spoke directly into the plugs at the end of the headset cable.
But this was not the day for my son’s first flight. The wind was 40 degrees to the left of Runway 32 at 12 gusting to 22 knots. A Gulfstream at Bedford had reported a 20 knot wind sheer at 500 feet on landing. Turbulence and low-level wind sheer alerts were given for several locations in the area. I sat in the plane at Lawrence for a minute feeling the wind bounce the plane on the ground wondering if I should fly. I knew that the wind coming over the hill on the left of the final approach to Runway 32 would give me quite a ride over the buildings and wires butting up against the approach end of the runway. I watched several higher-performance planes land. And I decided to give it a try.
I took off and flew in the direction of Plum Island to practice commercial maneuvers. Several very talented instructors have tried to help me get the commercial over the years, but something in me could just never get the big picture needed to fly the visual maneuvers that were described as “easy” by so many people, and I was beginning to feel the itch again to go for the commercial and instructor ratings. I wondered before takeoff if there would be much training value to flying in such wild conditions, but the wind smoothed out beautifully passing through 2000 feet. I tried steep turns, and they felt effortless. I tried chandelles, and they worked! I was so excited I did them again and again and again. Months of going out with no intention but to become “one with the plane” and practicing private maneuvers over and over again, of choosing aiming points all over the runway to break myself of habits and get “the picture,” of yearning to become so at one with the machine that I could tell what the plane would do seconds (many seconds) before it happened. And today it all fell into place. It was amazing. Maybe it was luck.
I flew back to Lawrence to practice landing in the wind. I was instructed by the controller to follow an Arrow back to the airport, a plane flying so high approaching the airport that I would never have found him on my own and wondered if he would even be able to land from such heights. And then I remembered my primary instructor’s advice to fly a steep approach to Runway 32 on windy days to reduce the time spent in the turbulence coming over the hill to the left on final approach. I remembered him telling me one day that he had passed the point of teaching me to be safe and was now trying to teach me some technique. I remembered my days in gliders being instructed to approach at best glide speed plus half the headwind to make good progress into the wind, plus the gust to protect against wind sheer on gusty days. I remembered my dreams of being “Joe Pilot” and touching down just at the stall with the nose up and the wheels quietly chirping in the gentle sequence upwind wheel, then downwind wheel, then nose wheel. After a few perfectly decent landings, I flew the final approach at 70 knots instead of the usual 65, and ended with the left wing firmly down, the rudder full right, the nose high, the stall warning light burning, and the wheels touching down left wheel, right wheel, nose wheel. I’m not saying I didn’t scare anyone in the control tower, but the controller’s voice never wavered from his usual calm and pleasant banter wafting over the air.
Amazing. So much learned today. This is why flying is not about getting somewhere, not about shooting approaches, not about mastering complicated machines, not about technology, not even about showing off to my son. This is Zen and the Art of Flying. This is the drug that has me hooked. This is what flying is all about: Flying is all about flying.
The EAA Grassroots Pilot Tour is bringing Jeff Skiles of “Miracle on the Hudson” fame to speak at the Executive Flyers Aviation hanger at the Lawrence Airport on Wednesday, October 9.
I flew to Keene, New Hampshire, early this morning.
On the way, I practiced turns and steep turns to the left and right, take-off stalls and landing stalls, slow flight straight-ahead and turning, and a new turning exercise from Wally Moran. I love the sense of gentle calmness, finesse, and emotional bonding with the plane that these quiet exercises instill in me. The turning exercise was particularly fascinating: I made it into miles of continuous slow turns to twenty degrees left and right of course to practice the continuous application of rudder and pitch as the ailerons moved, trying to keep the left and right turning point pinned to the wind shield as the fuselage rotated. And Keene has such a long runway that you can choose a dramatically different aiming point for each landing to break yourself of the old “aim for the numbers” routine.
But the approach to Keene was visually spectacular. Passing Mount Monadnock, the sky was blue with that vivid morning clarity that is so New England, and the valleys among the numerous ridges rising up into the sky were still filled with the firm morning fog of a cold valley in a soon-to-be autumn morning. I love flying by Mount Monadnock. It is a common jumping off point for the greatest cross-country pilots in my glider club at Sterling. But I am a Nebraska boy, and the greatest Nebraska author was Willa Cather who did all of her writing about Nebraska in New Hampshire. I’m told she loved Mount Monadnock, home to the artistic colony she attached herself to, so much that a friend of hers buried her with her feet pointing to Monadnock and then went out to cut down trees so that she would have a good view of Monadnock from her resting place.
Coming back from Keene I was surprised to notice an unknown airport below me. I spent a long time trying to force my mind to make the northwesterly turf runway into the northerly asphalt runway at Brookline, New Hampshire, which makes absolutely no sense. I now realize it was the private Mason Airfield southwest of Brookline. The joy of this discovery shot through the top of my head when I realized that there was a DC-3 sitting to the side of the southeast end of the runway! You can even see it on Google Maps.
Back at home, the controller prepared me to extend my downwind for two departures, but instead I throttled back to fly the entire downwind at 80, the controller got out three departures, and advised me “base leg your discretion” in time for a normal pattern to landing.
Some days are just absolutely perfect. And today perfection came before 11am.
I got enough encouragement and advice to give Katama a try this afternoon, and it was great. It was my first time at a real grass strip, I got a good crosswind landing coming home, and I got a tick bite for the first time in years!
By the time I got off the ground, the thermals were cooking, and it had become a day for a glider and not an airplane (I found a motor glider flying above me just east of the Martha’s Vineyard airport). The turbulence smoothed out over the water, and Cape Approach handed me off to Vineyard tower, who advised me to fly along the east side of the island, and there it was like a green postage stamp on the ground. Take a look at this great picture of the airport from Google Maps and zoom in enough to see all three oddly-intersecting runways. I flew overhead to determine the wind was right on 6 (windsock at the intersection of 3 and 6), and went out to start my 45 degree approach to the left downwind leg to 6. And watched as one Waco took off on 17, a Seneca took off on 3, and something else took off on 35. A bit of a free-for-all in ten knot winds.
I parked near the FBO (Eric had told me it was $15 to park at the FBO and $25 to park at the beach, and I felt cheap, and the FBO told me no charge), and started walking to the beach. After getting lost on airport property, I decided to use the roads to get to the beach. But the roads form an A around the airport, and the left and right legs of the A are absurdly long, and the left leg actually doesn’t go to the beach, but bends left again to parallel the beach for a half mile (with signs posted every few feet saying, “Don’t you dare cross my private property to the beach or I’m going to do something interesting to you”). So, baby, spring for the $25 and don’t spend half your visit walking to the beach.
The beach was great. The ocean was Atlantic Ocean, not the protected water I was so excited about a couple weeks ago at the Race Point beach near Provincetown, it was a completely different kind of surf.
This was my first time at a real grass strip. After years and years of practicing soft-field take-offs and landings, I had a pleasant surprise: It is so much easier to do it for real on a grass strip than goofing around pretending your wheels might get stuck in the concrete.
Coming home, the wind was 8 knots down 14, and the tower offered me 5; so I got a chance to land with an 8-knot crosswind component, the strongest direct crosswind I’ve experience since starting up again. And it went fine.
It is so great to be flying again.
Hours by car, minutes by air. Just don’t count the time to drive to the airport, check out the plane, taxi to the runway…
I flew down to Provincetown this morning to walk along the beach for an hour. I flew around the Boston airspace under the 3000 foot shelf to Marshfield and across the water to Provincetown. I amused myself by remembering all the mistakes I’d made over the years flying on the south edge of Boston (eg, flying over South Weymouth and thinking I was over Plymouth, and starting a sharp climb, and getting a sharp rebuke from a Boston controller as I got close to busting Boston airspace). But now, after five years of not flying, of course I am the sharpest pilot you will ever find. Just don’t talk to that Cape Air pilot behind me on the ground at Provincetown frustrated with me for taking off in front of the Cape Air pilot on a two-hour final approach to the airport.
But I landed at Provincetown, paid my $10 parking fee, walked three minutes to the beach, hid my shoes and socks under an unused lifeguard station, and put my feet in the ocean. It was the weekend before July 4, and it was just me and twenty other people on a long stretch of sand. Somehow, sitting here on the couch twelve hours later, after doing battle with my four-year-old son over his pajamas this evening, the memory of that solitary walk with cool water on my feet and warm sun on my back is not as vivid as I hoped it would remain. But I don’t think I will forget that seal twenty yards off the coast swimming down the shore with me.
At one point during my walk, it dawned on me that I was on a beach in warm sun, and I ought to be making the most of that. As I was taking off my shirt, a trio of high school boys walked behind me, and one said, “Look at that. That is gross.” I’m doing the best I can to convince myself he must have seen a dead fish on the beach.
Every now and then something happens that I have a hard time not taking as a metaphor.
Yesterday morning I thought the sound of thunder and heavy rain meant the end of a plan to fly before the annual meeting, but radar showed a well-defined region of rain and airports to the north were reporting only light rain, so I high-tailed it up to the airport to wait. I sat in the plane for fifteen minutes for the rain to stop, and then I flew to the north into New Hampshire and Maine under a shelf of eleven thousand foot overcast in air so calm and smooth north of Manchester that I wanted to put my feet up on the control panel and let the plane fly itself. Approaching Sanford, I flew among a few tiny puffs of clouds at 700 feet looking like a diorama an imaginative kid makes in grade school. Approaching Lawrence, I turned downwind to base over a field filled with seven thousand little kids playing soccer in wild chaos.
Later at home, my four-year-old son was annoying my wife. They were going at it. I decided they had to work this out on their own, and went off by myself. Eventually, my son came in and I proposed going to the local beach to swim. He was so riled that it took him a moment to realize I was proposing fun. We had a great time.
Sometimes you have to wait for the storm to pass, so you can be in the right place at the right time for something wonderful to happen.
I joke that all of my hobbies died when my son was born. Now I’m trying to get them back. So I’ve spent a few hours this spring trying to get the flying back after five years away.
Between the wind and the overcast and the rain and my own personal limitations (set strictly while the rust is wearing off), it has been a challenge to get time in the air. Wednesday afternoon, however, the sun came out at about 4pm, and I lit out of work like a bat out of some hot place to practice landings. I’ve been studying the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook for the first time since primary training, and find myself surprised that there is useful information there. Who knew? I wanted to make my landings look just like the book said. Didn’t quite work out that way in all respects, but there was just enough cross wind to pay attention to it, and for the first time in my life I saw the perfect picture of a cross wind landing just as described in the book. That was fun.
If you haven’t flow for a while, why not call up with someone who is flying, go off to have breakfast somewhere, and get yourself back into the game!